Posted by: seanmalstrom | March 2, 2011

FAIL. Snake Oil Scrolls

There is nothing new in Scrolls, the game that Mojang, the company behind Minecraft, has just announced. Scrolls is nothing more than a carbon copy of the business model of the slimy snake oil trend that many board games have recently become. The model is not to sell a ‘game’ but only to sell pieces (e.g. units) that tend to be randomized in packs. The idea is for the players to keep buying more and more of these ‘packs’ to create a constant revenue stream.

I’ve always found this a deplorable model because instead of focusing on increasing the revenue stream by increasing the number of actual customers, it focuses on a niche set of customers and gets them to pay more and more.

Let me translate this piece from PC GAMER:

It’s a single and multiplayer fantasy-themed strategy game that takes the mechanics of collectible card games, but changes what the Mojang guys have always seen as their limitations. Markus’ long time friend and the lead designer on Scrolls, Jakob Porser, realises this is going to take people by surprise.

I’m not surprised at all by this. Indie game makers are supposed to stand for ‘Independent Game Makers’ but it has been my experience that it really should stand for ‘Selfish Game Makers’. If I only had a dime every time I heard an ‘indie game maker’ say: “I’m not here to make money. I am here to make ‘art’ (or something else).”

“It’s actually been quite interesting to hear the reactions from people in the business when we have presented the idea behind Scrolls. I think the most common question has been. ‘But why are you not focusing on making more Minecraft? Like expansions, a sequel or developing the buisness model on the current version?’

This is vanity right here. The guy might as well be saying, “We are so genius. We are so much smarter than the rest of you guys.” The guy talking probably thinks he is a creative genius and that when he takes his socks off, his feet do not stink.

“Obviously, that would indeed be the best choice if we were only in it to make money.

It actually wouldn’t. But it would probably be better to finish Minecraft before doing another game. Especially since it is the company’s first game. And yes, development of Scrolls will diminish development of Minecraft. It is very difficult to make a game. A very small company making more than one game at once is not a good idea.

But we said from the start that the biggest advantage of Minecraft’s success is that it enables us to do the projects we really want to do. Scrolls is just that.”

In other words, this is a Vanity Game. What that means is that this is not a product that is designed to get customers but designed around people’s vanity. Imagine a writer saying, “This is a book I really wanted to do.” When a book is not set out to get money (which only comes from customers), it is called a vanity book and treated with a stigma. Vanity games should treated the same way. When someone says, “I am not making this for money,” they are actually saying, “I am not making this for customers.”

PC Gamer: You mention Scrolls arose out of you guys talking about some common gameplay flaws in collectible card games – what were they specifically?

Jakob Porser: Although I like many of the elements of random typically used in CCGs, some of them can be annoying and ruin the game. Take resource management for instance. Resources are crucial to be able to play the game at all, and to make acquiring them based on chance can completely ruin a game, if you as a player simply have no chance to counter your opponents attacks. Its one thing to lose a game to a better deck, but to never have the slightest chance of winning because of chance is just bad gameplay.

Now, what type of answer is this? You’re bringing a card/board type game on a computer because… you don’t like chance? Wrong answer.

The purpose of computer games is to do things card and board games cannot do. And much of that purpose is to eliminate the abstraction that card and board games are confined. For example, chess is fun. What if the chess pieces actually battled it out? Then you’d have something like Battle Chess which was a popular video game at a time. But isn’t the board abstract? What if it was an actual setting but still had the dynamics of a board? Then you’d end up leaning more and more toward a typical computer strategy game. The birth of RTS came when it was decided that it was silly to have ‘turns’ in a strategy game and just let everyone play at once.

This is probably why the interviewer asks…

PC Gamer: Is the game played on an abstract board or does it take place on maps that represent places?

Jakob Porser: It will be an abstract board.

Abstraction alone will kill this game. The progress of video games is less abstraction, not more. The fact that the game is not leveraging the computer to make itself less abstract is extremely worrying.

We haven’t decided on a price point yet, but the way it will work is, the game itself will be free for anyone, but the content of the game — the scrolls — you can buy packs of those. So we want people to be able to try the game before being able to invest in it, and we think that is the best way for everyone.

I myself have bought so many games where I’ve thought ‘oh my god this looks awesome’, then you install it and it’s sh*te [laughs]. So this way, you’ll be able to get a feel for the game, then you can buy it or not. So let’s say — this is no fixed number, just off the top of my head — you invest 10 euros in the game and you get 60, 70, 80 or whatever scrolls. Then you have expanded your collection. And this will be random, so if you’re lucky you’ll get a really rare card.

This game is totally being designed around the business model I see card games or board games doing lately.

Visually, how are the battles going to look?

We hired a great artist, jnkboy [Markus Toivonen], who has started working on this – his work is really awesome. We’re going to keep everything 2D, and it’s going to look sort of toonish. It’s not going to look like Japanese anime, but it’s going to have a little bit of that, mixed with a little bit more of the Western style of graphics. I think we’re going to have a really cool look for this game.

Computer games can leverage elements of computers such as animations, sound effects, and all. Card games cannot. Card games only have a single illustration on it. Therefore, much money goes into that illustration to make it as damn good as possible.

Here are some Magic the Gathering examples:


These are some very exciting illustrations. What does Scrolls have to offer?

BORING. *snore*. Note that due to everything else being ‘abstract’, these are likely going to be the *only* illustrations in the game. It is like the art has never left the ‘concept art’ stage! This would be fine if the person has no money. But Mojang has money. They can hire better art than this.

Even WoW fan art is better:

The swords-and-sorcery setting of Scrolls will be fleshed out with a backstory by Jerry Holkins, writer of Penny Arcade – a man with a taste for flowery prose.

This is a game about cards. Why does it need a story at all? Most games do not need a story and card games least of all.

For fun, I should make a backstory about the how the usual cards came to be. Did the Jack cheat with the Queen? Is that why the King was mad? Or was the Joker involved? And how did the Ace become the Ace? And what is up with the clubs, hearts, diamonds, and spades? We must have brilliant story with flowery prose to explain it all! Clearly, card games cannot be played without such backstory!

Sorry, but ‘Scrolls’ seems to be throwing up nothing but ‘red flags’. Just because an idea has been bouncing in your head for five years doesn’t mean it is good.

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